Saturday, February 14, 2009
AMERICAN SCARY (2006) d. John E. Hudgens & Sandy Clark
Reviewed by Rick Trottier
There are moments during our young lives where enjoyable events transform us permanently and leave us yearning for more. No one ever quite forgets the first time they went to an amusement park and took part in the excitement and exhilaration of sounds, sights and scary rides that left such a lasting emotional impact that for ever after, you tried to replicate that glorious day. The first time you rode a bike is probably right up there as another of the transfiguring experiences for its thrilling mix of danger, the heady draught of freedom and the whirling intoxication of being “a big kid” for the first time. Most people would probably not list watching a “horror host” television show as an event that left them forever changed, but it is likely that they are not really remembering the past as well as they should. Many folks probably stopped briefly on a channel that carried one of the old Creature Feature, Chiller or The Ghoul inspired shows and were either so terrified by the macabre imagery of the sets and costumes, so astounded by the sophomoric humor of the host or so repulsed by the low budget nature of the films that they vowed never to return. Certainly, that could be called a defining moment, though those folk will likely never own up to it. For those of us who were conquered by the mesmeric nature of the “horror host” show and succumb to its seductive siren call, we have spent our lives in search of other experiences just as holy and spiritual as that first time when we stared transfixed into the screen of an old Motorola black & white TV set and battled with the rabbit ears to see the grainy images just that much better. AMERICAN SCARY is a documentary that takes a look at the horror host phenomenon, past and present, and provides the viewer with one of the most loving and reverential tributes to this quintessentially American cultural icon that I have ever seen.
AMERICAN SCARY is a thoughtful historical look at horror hosts starting with their beginnings in the 1950s with Vampira and Zacherley, moving through the 1960s with Marvin, Chilly Billy and Ghoulardi, then moving through the 1970s and 1980s with Svengoolie, The Ghoul, Bob Wilkins, Son of Ghoul, John Stanley, Crematia, Stella and Elvira to name just a few and then ending in the present. While AMERICAN SCARY does not follow a purely chronological order and also does not have a rigid narrative structure, it does weave back and forth between exploring a particularly iconic celebrity and then analyzing some of the forces and changes at work in the horror host world such as concept generation, writing and scripts, the impact on viewers, the evolution of television and the internet and the nature of the films broadcast on the shows. AMERICAN SCARY is presented as a mix of old film/video clips of the masters at their work with many interview clips of the hosts themselves augmented by the anecdotes and analyses of authors, film historians, actors and pop culture mavens. What emerges is a panoply of images and sounds that is remarkably accurate in presenting the essence of the horror host movement during the last half of the 20th Century all the way up to today.
Anyone who enjoys watching our TV Show, Saturday Fright Special, or thrills to other horror host broadcasts like Shilling Shockers, or has deeply cherished memories of the horror hosts of old MUST get their hands on this DVD and watch it. There aren’t many chances to really go back to some of your happiest moments, but this is one of them. One reason AMERICAN SCARY is such a rousing experience is that the lineup of luminaries who ruminate on this sublime subject is simply staggering. There are dearly departed, glittering stars of the past like Maila Nurmi, Ernie Anderson, Bob Wilkins and Forrest J. Ackerman mixed with veteran stars of celestial gravity like John Zacherle, Billy Cardille, Tim Conway, Leonard Maltin, Tom Savini, Joe Bob Briggs and Jim “Commander USA” Hendricks. There are modern masters like Joel Hodgson, Kevin Scarpino, Michael Monahan and Richard “Count Gore de Vol” Dyszel just to drop a few names. The list of personalities and talents lined up for this horror host homage is nearly endless, impressively exhaustive and outrageously opulent. Many of the dignitaries can be seen in full costume and with makeup amply applied. Others are revealed in all their human normalcy, but the effect on the soul is still the same, INCREDIBLY PLEASING. Clips of the glory days are brilliantly blended with modern macabre mayhem so as to keep all ages happy and to acquaint those not fully aware of the diversity of this wide shadow realm with its splendor and majesty.
What can often happen with these kinds of “talking head” documentaries is that they can become snoozy talk-fests or messy and blathery mutual admiration society meetings, but a spectacular balance is attained in AMERICAN SCARY. There is a deferential seriousness to the historical inquiry that will satisfy even the most earnest of academicians. While there is no way to make a 93 minute documentary as comprehensive as true fanatics would like it to be without stretching the run time to 11 hours, AMERICAN SCARY hits nearly all of the bases. What also works wonderfully is the liberal dose of gentle and occasionally rollicking humor. There are subtle snickers and quiet chortles to be had right alongside full-scale belly laughs and a few pulled muscles from comedic hysterics. In addition, the incredibly various cast of characters makes AMERICAN SCARY like stepping into a joke shop run by a pack rat with a an eye for the garish and ghastly but equally gorgeous. Whether it is lavish sets, wacky wigs and gaudy garb, overdone accents and painstakingly applied piles of makeup, the eye is kept moving in ever-increasingly enjoyable circles. There are even a few scenes here and there where the loveliness of the female form is paid preferential worship. Women too have had a clear and powerful impact on this ghoulish phenomenon, and just because they also looked tantalizing while doing it speaks highly of their marketing savvy as well as their artistic creativity, showmanship and panache. One can’t help but be left with the feeling that you have watched pioneers and legends parade across your TV screen, people who brought to the world a form of entertainment that mines some of the wildest and most untamed corners of our collective psyches and for those who appreciated what they did, we were left immeasurably happier folk as a result.
AMERICAN SCARY is replete with a fascinating and deep extras menu. There is a very worthwhile audio commentary with the directors John E. Hudgens and Sandy Clark. Next is a segment called “Additional Interviews” which is a 15 minute block of five supplementary mini-features of much the same style as the documentary and providing even more pleasurable fodder for viewing. A 4 minute segment called “Nashville Horror Hosting” follows, which looks at this particular city that may be a smaller market than the Horror Host Mecca of Cleveland, but is second banana to none. There is a 6 minute “Horror Host wedding” which is exactly what the title suggests. At a horror convention, murderous mavens were united in matrimonial bliss. There is a 5 minute “original test reel” which is somewhat unique. Finally there are two trailers for the film. After watching the main feature, this excellent set of extras helped to prolong the joy and kept me feeling for a short period of time that my trip back to halcyon days may not come to an end by a return to reality.
AMERICAN SCARY is the real thing, a documentary for “fan-boys” of this specialty that we can truly revel in and be uplifted by. It looks at the evolution of horror-hosting from its dawn during the days of President Eisenhower, the Buick Roadmaster convertible and Willie Mays and flows seamlessly across nearly 60 years of American history, never crossing into the turbulent streams of the Vietnam War, Watergate, Middle East violence or economic upheaval, to leave us in that ever-comfortable womb of television inspired paradise. We are left cleansed by irreverent humor, cheap costumes and props and dubious quality motion pictures, but it is Holy Water cascading down from on high all the same. Some of us just like it bestowed by madcap folk known as Ghoulardi, Zacherley and Vampira, but it is nirvana nonetheless. Watch AMERICAN SCARY. You won’t be sorry.